Stigma at home, fear of deportation haunt Jamaican illegal immigrants with HIV/AIDS

By Ingrid Brown
Jamaica Observer, Kingston
Friday, December 18, 2009; 1:30 PM

NEW YORK -- The two men drinking coffee in a booth nearby are in blue uniforms, police officers, so our conversation is minimal, punctuated here and there by anxious glances over the shoulder. We are huddled in a fast-food restaurant in the center of Manhattan, not far from Madison Square Garden, discussing something that is best addressed in muffled tones.

Please refer to me only as Samantha, she says. It is one of several names she goes by to shield her identity from those in Jamaica who might reveal the truth to her acquaintances there, and to prevent her from being cut off from what she so desperately needs here.

She is 32 years old. She is in the United States illegally. She has no medical insurance. She is HIV-positive.

Her face is creased with worry lines, and today, like every other for the past 10 years, she wonders if the long arm of the immigration law will finally grab her.

Samantha. She has borrowed the name from a deceased relative. It helps her hide from the shame associated with HIV. If her family and friends knew the truth, the shy, petite woman fears, her life would become like that of a leper. In Jamaica, the disease is shrouded in stigma and discrimination.

"Most of my family in Jamaica don't know that I am here sick," she says.

Samantha is the rare one bold enough to share her story. But she is not the only HIV-positive illegal Jamaican immigrant in this city, state or country without proper medical care.

Some have gone underground, fearing -- realistically or not -- that continuing to receive treatment through the public health-care system could expose their illegal status and result in deportation.

On this day Samantha wears an oversize coat and a peak hat pulled down on her forehead. Her sad, dark-brown eyes stare out as she recounts the experience of being with multiple sex partners before she learned three years ago while in the States that she was carrying the virus.

She had been ill for more than a year before she went to a hospital. "It was only after I became so sick and could barely find the strength to walk that I begged a guy to drive me to the emergency room," she says, twitching her fingers nervously.

"I don't believe I would have continued to have had several sexual partners if I knew I was positive all that time," she says, sadly.

Still, with no permanent home, no set income and no family support, Samantha continues to have multiple sex partners, at times, she said, to get a warm bed or food in her stomach when she is unable to find work providing home care for the elderly. As an undocumented immigrant, it is difficult to get jobs.

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